After spending 16 months criss-crossing America from Iowa to Florida to cover an incredible US election, I was prepared for anything when I arrived in Cleveland this week.
At the opening party of the Republican convention, held at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, I met a man dressed as George Washington and it seemed, well, almost normal. Later I ran into Abraham Lincoln — he was in fact a member of Missouri’s delegation — and it again seemed routine.
On the convention floor, an incredible crucible of democracy and pageantry, I asked the man why he was dressed as Lincoln. “Cuz that’s what I look like!” he replied. Was he supporting Donald Trump? “Yes. Trump. Trump. Trump. Trump.”
Days earlier at a rally in Indiana, an 89-year-old second world war veteran told me God had chosen Trump’s vice-presidential running mate 6,000 years ago and would soon reveal his identity. As an Irishman who has spent more than 10 years in the US, I’ve heard plenty about God but had no idea He was so good at keeping secrets. But, sure enough, Trump was introduced by Mike Pence, the Indiana governor who days later was named as his VP.
Despite being prepared for anything at the convention, the marquee political event where 2,472 Republican delegates gather to crown their presidential nominee, I emerged in complete shock on Wednesday. Thousands of people in the Quicken Loans arena had just booed Ted Cruz, the Texas senator who came second in the GOP primary, after he failed to endorse Trump in his prime-time speech.
Cruz is widely unpopular with the Republican elite, who see him as supremely arrogant. Hence the running joke: “Why do people take an instant dislike to Ted Cruz? Because it saves time.”
The next morning, outside the Westin Hotel, I ran into Jeff Sessions, a conservative Alabama senator who is ideologically aligned with Cruz but advises Trump. He told me that Cruz had made a “mistake”.
Cruz, meanwhile, was across town telling the Texas delegation that he could not endorse someone who had retweeted an unflattering photograph of his wife Heidi, and insulted his father, a Cuban émigré. He told the delegates that he was not going to “come like a servile puppy dog and say thank you very much for maligning my wife and maligning my father”.
The party Cruz held for fans was at Shooters on the Water, a restaurant on the shore of Lake Erie. There, Jack Harvey, a Colorado student whose father runs a group called StopHillaryPAC, told me he hoped Cruz would “mend the broken fences” to unite the party to help beat Hillary Clinton.
“I will vote for Donald Trump in the election but I’m not gonna support him before then,” he said. “He’s a total jerk and a misogynist. But I’d rather have a total jerk as president than the most corrupt woman in America.”
Several other Cruz fans said it was important that their man was not seen to be a “sore loser” when he gave his speech. After the address, I rushed down to the convention floor, where Susan Busse, an Illinois doctor who had voted for Cruz, told me he had shown himself to be a “jealous little boy”.
It was as if the hand of God had been at work again. Earlier, as Cruz was telling his fans how he had beaten 15 — but not 16 — Republicans, Trump Force One flew overhead. The sight of the plane owned by the man who repeatedly mocked Cruz as “Lyin Ted” sparked huge boos from the cowboy-hat-wearing crowd.
The Cruz-Trump feud may have been the only conversation in town ahead of Trump’s acceptance speech, scheduled for Thursday night, but it was just another bizarre event that sowed more doubt about Trump. It followed his wife Melania’s speech, which plagiarised words from Michelle Obama, but it took his team two days to admit what had happened.
Perhaps it was God again, or perhaps the luck of the Irish. But the night before Melania’s speech, I headed to the Westin for a drink with two Irish journalist friends. I managed to collar Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign chairman, who told me that the convention would show “the other side” of Trump and “hopefully bring the party together”. While Trump’s adult children delivered speeches over the week that were widely applauded, the controversies that stole the headlines spurred establishment Republicans to grumble privately that it was the worst convention they had seen in years.
But before the Republican establishment — and people outside the US — conclude that the spectacle in Cleveland means that Trump cannot win in November, it would be wise to consider the speech that the star of Duck Dynasty, a very successful reality television show about a Louisiana family that sells duck-hunting gear, gave on the first night.
“It’s been a rough year for the media experts. It must be humbling to be so wrong about so much for so long,” said Willie Robertson, who was wearing a stars and stripes bandanna and a ZZ Top-style long beard.
So, it’s worth bearing in mind one of the things Trump has proven over the past year: that he and his team will fight hard. As I was writing this diary, Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer and right-hand man, wandered past my table. Just before our brief chat, one acquaintance greeted the man who has never been accused of being a shrinking violet with “Hey Fido”.
At the end of a crazy few days, Trump gave his acceptance speech, which supporters said was an honest assessment of the problems in America but which Hillary Clinton’s camp rejected as a “dark picture” of the country. A fool would predict the result of November’s presidential election. But one thing is clear: it will be a hell of a battle.
Demetri Sevastopulo is the FT’s Washington bureau chief
Illustration by Luke Waller